Oh Buffster where art thou? Jim Prentice names nothing but bosses to his ‘blue ribbon’ panel on worker morale

Posted on December 14, 2014, 12:19 am
8 mins

Dan MacLennan – known as Buff, or the Buffster, to his friends – with Premier Ralph Klein, back in the day when Alberta’s leaders didn’t just talk to the Big Kahunas from the executive suite. Below: Ex Syncrude CEO Jim Carter, former Edmonton Journal Publisher Linda Hughes, Maclab Enterprises Chair Marc de La Bruyère and Queen’s University Professor Françoise Morissette.

Premier Jim Prentice, former chartered bank vice-president, has created a “blue ribbon” advisory panel of big bosses from public and private sector executive suites to do something about sagging morale and high turnover in the Alberta public service.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Mr. Prentice started the month by naming his Big Three Agents of Change – or, as they’re known around here, the “Three Amigos.” They are:

  • Ian Brodie, University of Western Ontario business professor and first chief of staff to that well-known friend of the working man, Prime Minister Stephen Harper
  • Oryssia Lennie, former deputy minister of this and that in the Alberta and federal mandarinates
  • Richard Dicerni, Alberta’s top civil servant and another veteran of the mandarinate in Ottawa, Queen’s Park and now here on the northern bank of the North Saskatchewan

In case that level of attention wasn’t enough to get Alberta’s civil service underlings to stop feeling like they’re under-valued, under-staffed, underpaid and constantly under assault, on Friday the premier named even more big cheeses from the executive suite to the job of probing the mysteries of low morale and “shockingly” high turnover among the rank and file of the public service.

The latest batch of top-floor experts on what motivates shop-floor sluggos?

  • Jim Carter, retired president and CEO of Syncrude, with annual revenue in the order of $3.5 billion
  • Marc de La Bruyère, rental housing conglomerate Maclab Enterprises chair and trustee of a chichi U.S. prep school
  • Françoise Morissette, a Queen’s University business professor and adjunct business school prof at the University of Alberta
  • Linda Hughes, retired Edmonton Journal publisher and current corporate newspaper chain board member

In other words, what are technically known as “the suits,” or maybe “the usual suspects.” One or two of them may have had a real job for longer than the premier’s summer sojourns in coal mining way back when, but they’re far, far from it now.

And we all know there’s nothing like the plush carpets and heated toilet seats of the private or public sector executive floor, not to mention the Spartan prestige of the faculty club, to isolate a person from the rigours of the workplace and the financial challenges faced by the folks who toil on the front lines of the civil service or in like careers.

So I doubt that it’s just me who sees the irony – not to mention the utter foolishness – of bragging about a panel of professional mandarins and coruscating executives from the last century’s flagging industries being asked to create the public service of the future!

Just a thought, Mr. Premier, but if you’re thinking about a bigger role for the private sector going forward – which as a good neoliberal, you doubtless are – the newspaper industry may not be the right avatar of success to be looking at just now, if you know what I mean.

OK, enough sarcasm. What to do? Leastways, what should you do if you don’t want to be remembered for a bon mot like “let them eat cake.”

Well, duh! Consult the people who actually do the work, and by that I don’t mean a brief tour of the shop floor by execs in lab coats and cordovan shoes.

Ralph Klein did this back in 2005 when he had Mr. Prentice’s job, asking Dan “Buff” MacLennan, then the president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and a veteran Correctional Officer, to serve on a panel looking into how to stop young people from using crystal meth.

Ed Stelmach and his health minister Ron Liepert did the same thing, asking the Buffster to serve on the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Health led by Fred Horne, who was later health minister himself. The committee reported in the fall of 2010.

And, Mr. Premier, your health minister, Stephen Mandel, went to the same guy to serve on the Edmonton Mayor’s Task Force on Community Safety.

The latter two efforts took place after Mr. MacLennan had left AUPE to work for the private sector, but in each case the fact that he’d done a difficult job on the front lines of law enforcement and earned the respect of two premiers as a tough negotiator for tens thousands of civil service and health care employees lent credibility to the work being done and assured impacted workers they had a voice at the table.

In case Mr. Prentice didn’t notice, AUPE is the union that represents about 80 per cent of the 27,000 nervous and increasingly distrustful civil servants whose jobs and lives are about to be fiddled with by his “blue ribbon” panel of suits from the top floor.

Mr. MacLennan, of course, is not the only working person with brains and insights that might be tapped for such a panel.

But I wonder if it even occurred to the premier to ask someone who the people being probed knew and trusted to join this effort? Naw, didn’t happen, did it? That’s one thing about being the VP of a chartered bank and a Harper cabinet minister – you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Hoi Polloi! Except maybe just before an election.

And when you never see them or think of them, it’s hard to remember they’re even there, dutifully paying the bills.

Well, it’s never too late to pick up the phone and call someone who has spent their career on the front lines, actually doing work.

If the premier can’t be bothered to do so, and decides to add underrepresented to the list above, I’m sure he’ll forgive the poor working stiffs in the Alberta public service if they view efforts of his panel of Big Kahunas with a certain degree of justified skepticism.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

10 Comments to: Oh Buffster where art thou? Jim Prentice names nothing but bosses to his ‘blue ribbon’ panel on worker morale

  1. David Harrigan

    December 14th, 2014

    Interesting idea and in many ways, Buff would be great in that role. But only if wanted the real story.

    But an even better idea would have been to appoint Guy Smith, the current President of AUPE. Just a thought – if we want to know what the front line is thinking, why not ask the person they chose to speak for them?

    Finally – and not that I would ever be a pedantic person, (outside the office) but “hoi” is a definite article. “the Hoi Polloi!”? Shame

    • December 14th, 2014

      Mr. Harrigan is quite right about my determined use/misuse of “the Hoi Polloi,” in the sense that in Greek the phrase already means “the mass,” “the many,” or “the majority.” (To him, as a highly literate person, it therefore sounds funny, like the Seattle menu I once held in my hands that offered beef, “with au jus.”) But since Hoi Polloi has become an English expression meaning “the riffraff,” or words to that effect, I feel it is quite justified to continue to use it in this manner. H.W. Fowler observes that “these Greek words … are equally uncomfortable in English whether ‘the’ is prefixed to them or not.” Therefore, he advises, “the best solution is to eschew the phrase altogether.” From time to time, however, I am brave enough to defy even the great H.W. Fowler, and this is one of those. So, alas, I feel no shame. DJC

  2. Linda Pushor

    December 14th, 2014

    You hit the nail on the head again Sir. Even his name for this committee of people that very likely don’t even have a public service employee as a causal acquaintance reeks of elitism. The commoners have nothing of value to contribute to understanding and finding solutions to their own lived experience.

    What I find even more galling is that this ‘Blue Ribbon Panel’ announcement indicates that our illustrious Premier was so taken by thinking that Albertans would applaud this incipient move that he didn’t include any Terms of Reference, nor expected outcomes, time frame or measures.

    Here we have a small ‘illustrious’ group of elite individuals that we can get together four times a year (for how long, apparently no one knows) for some sort of gab fest at the public expense.

    Well done Jimbo!

  3. Public Servant

    December 14th, 2014

    David have you been eavesdropping in our coffee room? This is exactly how front line workers feel.
    Diamond Jim doesn’t even consider talking to the real folks doing the real work. Instead, he once again goes to the suits to talk down to us.

    More and more it appears that Prentice is Redford in a nicer pantsuit.

  4. anonymous

    December 14th, 2014

    In other words, the beatings will continue until morale improves.

  5. Athabascan

    December 14th, 2014

    I can tell you exactly what these corporatists and their high priests and priestesses of corporatism will conclude: “Worker morale would improve if only they would work harder and for less money, because as we all know money is not a motivator. What is good for corporations is good for society.” Oh, and maybe they will add, “If only pesky government regulations could be done away with, we corporatists could attend to improving worker morale.”

    Here’s a twist on the trickle down theory. If bosses are happy (high morale), it will magically trickle down to the rank and file workers. After all it makes workers happy to see their bosses happy.

  6. Guy Q

    December 14th, 2014

    I bet diamond Jim didn’t use use his stamp “Nihil obstat – nothing stands in the way” when he gave his mandate to his elite group with no institutional memory of the Alberta Civil Service.

    If we really needed this group, I would have picked Dr Roy Adams of the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University and/or Henry Mintzberg of the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University. Both Roy and Henry have researched and published far more material that is relevant than anybody on this “blue ribbon” panel and are well respect for their work.

    Another management guru I would tap is UK Professor John Seddon. In his book “Systems Thinking in the Public Sector: The Failure of the Reform Regime and a Manifesto for a Better Way” offers stunning clarity on what the problems is in the public service. As John put’s it: “It’s the system stupid.”

    I’ll be reading Françoise Morissette only book that I could find that she ever wrote “Made in Canada Leadership: Wisdom from the Nation’s Best and Brightest on the Art and Practice of Leadership” I just hope this is not code for squeezing more out of individual workers who’s workload is already overwhelming.

    As another management guru William Edwards Deming, author of the book “Out of the Crisis” put it – “95% of variation in performance is due to the system” You could turn everyone into Leaders, but if the system is still broken, you will never get the results desired.

    Here’s hoping that this “blue ribbon” task force is not yet just another fad, heaven knows there enough of this going around in management circles these days.


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